The Porsche Panamera Turbo Tears Up the Autobahn

Porsche's Panamera Turbo has everything but an ejection seat

This article is part of an IEEE Spectrum special report: Top 10 Tech Cars of 2010.

As my Porsche Panamera Turbo hits its stride on the German autobahn, there’s plenty to focus on, both inside and out. A V-8 engine is cranking 368 kilowatts (493 horsepower) to four churning wheels. The dual-clutch automated manual transmission fires off fast-twitch gear changes. A rear deck lid spoiler rises and widens at 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) to reduce aerodynamic drag, and then, as we cross the 200-km/h threshold, repositions like an airplane flap to boost downforce and stability.

But despite the mechanical marvels on display—and the voice in my head telling me to concentrate on the bends along this no-limit stretch of pavement—the most astonishing action is taking place in the backseat. There my driving partner remains blissfully asleep as I spur the Panamera to 300 km/h (186 mph to this Yank). That’s more than enough to show a pesky BMW M3 and a Mercedes-Benz diesel wagon—which had been ankle-biting my Porsche for the past 10 km—where they rank in the autobahn’s cruel pecking order.

Go ahead—call the Panamera ugly, ungainly, or just plain odd. You won’t be the first to take issue with Porsche’s fastback-roofed sedan, the first four-door car in the company’s storied history. A traditional sports sedan, says chief designer Michael Mauer, would have been too easy. Instead, his team imagined a four-door sports car mit hatchback, penciling backseat dimensions to fit the lanky frame of then-CEO Wendelin Wiedeking, who is 188 centimeters tall (6 feet 2 inches).

”The Panamera does take some getting used to,” Mauer says, even as he vigorously defends the beauty that derives from pure function.

Internal trickery runs the gamut: Adaptive Bi-Xenon headlights monitor vehicle speed and other parameters in order to swivel when going around curves; the lamps also automatically adjust their range and width to handle potentially dangerous situations, including two-lane back roads and foul-weather driving. A high-resolution screen holds a navigation system with 3-D renderings of buildings in major cities. The Burmester audiophile system has 16 speakers and more than 1000 watts.

The Panamera also raises the large-car performance bar to insane heights: Toggle up the electronic launch-control function and the US $133 000 Turbo catapults from 0 to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 3.8 seconds—as quick as the 911 Turbo, which weighs about 400 kilograms less—and covers a quarter mile in 11.7 seconds at 190 km/h (118 mph). That launch control requires getting the Sport Chrono option, which adds a fiddly lap timer and the all-important Sport Plus mode to the car’s myriad computerized performance systems.

Even the 294-kW (394-hp) Panamera S and all-wheel-drive 4S models squirt to 96 km/h in less than 5 seconds. That robust power stems from a 4.8-liter, direct-injection V-8 with dual turbochargers and extensive weight-saving materials, including magnesium valve covers and aluminum camshaft adjusters. Crankshaft and connecting rods trim a remarkable 2.3 kg (5 pounds) from those on the Cayenne S’s same-size V-8, reducing critical reciprocating mass for swifter engine response. The Panamera S retails for about $90 000 and the all-wheel-drive 4S adds another $4000 to that sticker price.

A less costly, 220-kW (roughly 300-hp) V-6 Panamera will go on sale this year. A Panamera hybrid will follow in 2011, mating a V-6 with an electric motor that together should approach 298 kW (400 hp).

In the V-8 models, the low-mounted engine drops the car’s center of gravity to enhance handling, an arrangement made possible by a lateral driveshaft that runs directly through the engine’s crankcase, rather than being positioned below it. Dry-sump lubrication, common in race cars, ensures that the Panamera gets a steady serving of oil, even when the car is undergoing extreme g forces that can starve an ordinary engine of lubrication. European models get a fuel-saving engine stop-start function, similar to that of hybrids, yet Porsche nixed the system for American owners. There, the Porsche still dodges a gas-guzzler tax, with the Turbo estimated at 15 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway (15.7 and 10.2 L/100 km).

The Panamera adopts the new Porsche-Doppelkupplung transmission, or PDK, a slick dual-clutch unit that’s far faster to shift than it is to pronounce. A driver can cruise in comfy automatic mode or shift manually over a range of selectable performance programs, using paddle shifters or the console lever. One clutch handles gears 1, 3, 5, and 7, the other gears 2, 4, 6, and reverse, with one clutch releasing a gear as the other simultaneously grabs the next successive speed, up or down. Other carmakers have implemented such a scheme, but Porsche’s refinements permit near-instantaneous gear shifts, along with a transmission that can downshift multiple gears (for example, from fifth to second) the instant you floor the gas pedal.

An adaptive air suspension features what Porsche calls a world first: air springs that adjust by adding or subtracting air volume. The feature relies on two things: a road-sensing calculator, called the Porsche Active Suspension Management (PASM) system, and performance maps selected by the driver. In Comfort mode, each spring holds 2.2 L of air for a gentler ride. In Sport mode, valves close and reduce the volume to 1.1 L, firming the suspension for sharper control. That air suspension also lets the driver raise or lower the car’s body, including a maximum height to clear steep driveways or curbs or ultralow for high performance.

The acronym soup continues with a sophisticated active all-wheel-drive system (Porsche Traction Management, or PTM) and Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control (PDCC), which combines active antiroll bars with an electronic rear differential to keep the Panamera’s body amazingly flat when cornering at high speed. The antiroll bars feature hydraulic swivel motors that send pressurized oil to either side of the car, creating counterresistance on the body as cornering forces build. The rear differential divvies power among the wheels according to their relative traction and accelerative forces. In steady cruising, the roll bars are decoupled, boosting ride smoothness by allowing each wheel to respond more sensitively to bumps.

All a driver needs to know is that the Panamera makes the term four-door sports car a reality, not a marketing gimmick. About as wide as a Mercedes S-Class and topping 1900 kg, the Panamera Turbo is no Lotus lightweight. Yet crank up the Sport Plus setting and the Panamera boggles mind and body alike, cracking the 1 g barrier of lateral acceleration, among other feats. It’s also a license shredder, so luxurious and accommodating that it’s forever sneaking past 100 mph when you meant (honestly, officer) to go 75, making this Porsche the ultimate carpooling machine. For the autobahn, anyway.

This article originally appeared in print as "Porsche’s Panamera lacks only an ejection seat."

About the Author

Lawrence Ulrich, who test-drove two cars for “Top 10 Tech Cars,” came to auto journalism by an unorthodox route: rock music. The native Detroiter worked in the 1980s as a rock musician, playing keyboard as far afield as Europe before becoming a business writer in the early 1990s, then a car writer. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and regularly writes for The New York Times and Automobile.

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